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V/A - Panama! 3: Calypso, Panameño, Guajira Jazz and Cumbia Típica on the Isthmus 1960-1975

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Artist: V/A

Album: Panama! 3: Calypso, Panameño, Guajira Jazz and Cumbia Típica on the Isthmus 1960-1975

Label: Soundway

Review date: Oct. 22, 2009

The Isthmus of Panama is known to schoolchildren for two reasons. First, it connects North and South America, uniting the two continents that form the New World. Second, it divides the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans, or did until the construction of the Panama Canal, a feat of Franco-American engineering that cost some 30,000 lives by the time of its opening in 1915.

Less well known is Panama’s historical role uniting the musical cultures of the English and Spanish-speaking nations ringing the Caribbean. In fact, very little research has been done on Panamanian popular music, either by ethnomusicologists or enthusiasts, local or foreign, and with the distinct exception of famous salseros (notably Rubén Blades), recordings of Panamanian music are rare.

Fortunately, Soundway has taken upon itself to remedy the lack of knowledge in this area with a series of albums simply titled Panama, compiling historical recordings from the 1960s and ’70s. Volumes 1 and 2 bore subtitles listing the genres represented (Latin, Calypso, Funk, Cumbia); the newest addition to this stellar series adds Guajira Jazz to the list. Listeners unfamiliar with the heady cultural mix of Panama may expect little more than covers of genres better associated with other countries, but they will be very surprised from the very first cut, “Fire Down Below” by Lord Panama and the Stickers, a brassy calypso song that mixes good Trinidadian English with good Panamanian Spanish. The very next cut, “Samba Calypso,” by Orquesta de Amanda Boza con Manito Johnson, is an excellent example: samba rhythms, calypso orchestra, English verses with Spanish chorus , and a jazzy clarinet solo.

This is not to say that every piece mixes and matches. “Bilongo” (Papi Brandao y sus Ejecutivos) and “Shingalin en Panama” (Orquesta Los Embajadores con Camilo Azuquito), and of course “St. John’s Guaguanco” (Los Salvajes del Ritmo) are classic salsa.“Moving-Grooving” (Little Francisco Greaves) is pure funk, complete with grunts and shouts. “Guo Jazz” (Ralph Weeks with The Telecasters) is late 1960s New York Latin jazz. And “Bamboo Dance” (Black Czar) is Trinidadian calypso through and through.

Nevertheless, for connoisseurs, the greatest fun comes from stylistic mashups, such as the elegy for Martin Luther King Jr. in Mexican conjunto/soul ballad style (“Masters are Gone” by Sir Valentino con Combo Esclavos Alegres), the reggae/salsa mix of “El Ratón” (Los Invasores), the very West African funk instrumental ballad “Carmen” (Los Silvertones), or the accordion-driven “20 de enero en Ocu (Yin Carrizo), which adds salsa bass, skratchi drumming such as one would expect from Surinamese kaseko to a relatively simple vocal line in Spanish.

Every cut is a pleasure to listen to, well performed, well edited (although a few of the longer cuts seem to fade prematurely), and digitally mastered to produce a clear sound without sacrificing the joys of vinyl. Listeners who take a chance on this disc will find it difficult to resist hearing the previous two volumes as well.

By Richard Miller

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